One of the most important issues of the UK general election on 7 May is housing. Housing demand far outstrips supply. Fewer and fewer people are able to buy homes as British cities become increasingly unaffordable. The problem in its most basic form boils down to the fact that we are unable to supply the land to meet housing demand. As a result, housebuilding has been stifled and prices are spiraling.
In an attempt to tackle the crisis, the main political parties have all promised to significantly increase the number of homes we build every year. But, pledging hundreds of thousands of new homes is only half a policy. Political parties must also pledge the land required to build them in order to be credible.
Historically, the preferred brownfield-first policies, under which previously developed sites are prioritised for development, have systematically failed to supply the required level of housing set out by the UK government. Even during the "boom years" from 2003 to 2007, when an average of 160,000 new homes were built every year, housing supply fell far short of the 230,000 news homes that experts say are needed annually to meet demand. Last year, just 140,000 new homes were built.
So, why are we failing to deliver new homes at the levels we need? I believe the key factor is the lack of available land to build upon.
A solution to the housing crisis
To free up vital land for development we must rethink the strategic growth of our towns and cities and reappraise our green belt – recognising that there is potential for settlements to grow sustainably while protecting our natural environment.
The green belt was introduced in Britain in 1947 through the Town and Country Planning Act, which cordoned off areas of open land around towns and cities from major development (unless in exceptional circumstances). Fourteen green belts were subsequently established across England. The common assumption that all green belt land is attractive, accessible and ecologically rich is simply not true. The green belt is best thought of as a spectrum, ranging from spectacular countryside to unremarkable scrubland.
This post-war "one size fits all" approach is outdated and out of sync with the pressures of the current housing crisis. The broad and stringent green belt regulations covering this diverse area of land have changed very little since their introduction in the 1940s, yet they cover up to 13% of the total land in England.
Why has no one acted?
A barrier to a more intelligent approach to assessing the value of our land is politics. The political taboo around the issue of green belt development has stifled UK debate on a local and national level.
Broadway Malyan, the architectural practice where I work, decided to find out more about people’s attitudes toward the green belt in the context of the general election by commissioning YouGov, a polling company, to survey 4,510 people representing regions across the country. Of those surveyed, 67% recoiled at the suggestion of building on the green belt. This reaction is part of the problem and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the green belt and its purpose.
A logical solution to our current crisis is to look to the lower-quality areas of our green belt to build vital new homes, while protecting our most valuable areas of countryside. To do this we need to see stronger leadership from the main UK political parties and an answer to the burning question – if not on selected pieces of green belt, then where are we to build the new homes we so urgently need?
A city-region strategy
We are not recommending unchecked urban sprawl or building soulless concrete jungles, nor are we recommending developing on our most valued areas of countryside. It is worth remembering that important parts of the countryside (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Areas for Conservation, etc) are protected from development by law for their aesthetic and ecological value. The green belt policy simply adds another layer of protection. Any green belt reappraisal would not allow development on these important areas.
If we are to meet housing demand in England, it is essential that the next government carries out an assessment of the UK’s green belts and takes a more strategic planning approach to cities with green belt policies – potentially through city-region plans to help properly plan for future housing and economic growth.
We believe this can be achieved through the identification of appropriate "Super Hubs" for growth and development. These are places within a city's area of influence that are already connected to the city economically, socially and through transportation networks. Super Hubs can grow efficiently and organically without encroaching into large areas of the countryside. They would form part of an integrated network of liveable centres that support the city region in the long-term.
Within city regions, relevant authorities should carry out coordinated and rigorous assessments to determine where it would be best to build new housing. Good examples of such settlements in the surrounding suburbs of London include Chessington and Chigwell, as well as established commuter towns, such as Woking and Chelmsford, and connected market towns, such as Guildford. Densities should also be increased around new and existing major transport hubs, such as train stations.
We need to ensure that the new homes and communities created are suitable and sustainable for people to live in. When building these new developments, we should make efforts to maintain our protected areas, while ensuring we provide attractive green space for the community.
To increase housing supply, we must examine the relationship between our cities and their surrounding regions. We must review what our green belt policy is and what it does. We already have the resources and the infrastructure to do this sensitively, without jeopardising our most valuable areas of countryside – all we need now is a UK Government that will step up to make a positive change.
For more details about Jeff Nottage's argument, see Broadway Malyan's new report 50 Shades of Green Belt